Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here, back in this extraordinary institution, especially at a time when you are doing so much with it, or to it.
The refurbished galleries of ancient art mark an important moment here in the larger saga of this museum, which is unlike any other art museum in the country, I think. There are several reasons for this. One, of course, is quality: Cleveland is one place that has always stood for artistic quality, and generally managed to put curatorial concerns ahead of many of the other things that museums these days seem so desperately to want.
Cleveland has always seemed, to me, to be a place in which art has mattered most, in which the concerns of art, as opposed to the concerns of box office or the concerns of event planning or the concerns of shopping or the concerns of eating, all of which play a larger and larger role in the decisions made by museum boards of trustees today.
At the same time, this has always seemed to be to be a museum that is firmly grounded in the real world. It is not a stuffy institution that naively, or disingenuously, pretends that it is still serving the world as it existed in , when the first wing of this building opened.
The reality is that all of the things that I just mentioned, and appeared to dismiss—box office and shops and event spaces—are not entirely bad, however problematic they can sometimes be, and it is as foolish to reject them entirely as it is to give in to everything they represent. The reality is that today, art is more democratic than it has ever been, and we have to believe that this is a good thing.
If we did not, I should be in another line of work, and probably so should a lot of other people in this room.
The idea of the museum as a key public space in our culture, as a kind of interior version of Public Square, is a logical and in many ways positive outgrowth of the fact that more people pay attention to art, and more people want to see art, than ever before. I would add, by the way, that the role the museum plays as a kind of town square, as a place where we see people and expect to have a social as well as a cultural experience, is all the more important today, in an age when so many of our social experiences are virtual, not real.
We have so many of our social exchanges, as well as our business transactions, online now, and we experience so many images, including cultural ones, through the computer. There is a special meaning, then, even a special power, to the idea of real things in real space in real time that the museum represents. It is a temple of the authentic in an age of the virtual. If we have chosen to make it also a place in which we can engage in real social exchange as well as experience real objects, there is nothing wrong with that.
In each case we are celebrating authenticity, and the pleasures of the real. In any event, I spoke of a commitment to quality as one thing that makes this museum notable.
And most of society pretty much agreed on what represented cultivation: an appreciation of the classical in the form of the kind of architecture of the original wings of this museum.
In , of course, when the addition by Marcel Breuer was completed, it was no longer so clear that you could equate classical architecture, or Beaux-Arts architecture, with being cultivated. Sometimes very different priorities took over: the striped building, as I have always tended to call the Breuer building, seemed to deny the original building as much as support it. That seems to be how Breuer treated the original building here, flipping the museum around entirely so that it could accommodate to the automobile along with presenting an entirely different architectural face to the community.
Well, we all know that that was a mixed success at best, and that while the Breuer wing had a certain integrity as well as dignity to it, like his Whitney Museum in New York, it was never a particularly easy or endearing building, and it seemed to coexist with the old building mainly by ignoring it. As I think everyone in this room knows, the museum has been working for several years to find a more sophisticated, more subtle, and ultimately more lasting solution to the complex problem of growth and architectural coherence, two things that in the world of museums have too often seemed to contradict one another.
Now that portions of the Rafael Vinoly expansion are complete, it is possible to see the beginnings of a return to viewing this complex as a single whole thing, although of course a vastly larger one than it was originally, and a vastly more complex one.
And the Vinoly sections offer an intriguing paradox: they seem to me to be more modern in many ways than the Breuer in that they are so light visually, and yet at the same time they seem more compatible, and more deferential, to the museum building.
It is all a reminder that in the business of mixing new and old, few things are as they seem, nothing is easy, and architectural imitation is not by any stretch the sincerest form of flattery.
I spoke a moment ago about the special value of the museum as a place of authenticity, as a place in which real and treasured objects are put before us in what we hope will be a real and treasured environment that encourages not only the contemplation of these objects, but social connections among the contemplators, as it were. In other words, the museum is a treasure house of real things in a real place, very different from the virtual things in virtual places that we spend so much of our time dealing with today.
Why Architecture Matters is an attempt to figure out what underlies a life spent thinking about and writing about architecture, to try and put into words all of the ideas that I have taken for granted for most of my life. It is, I might add, a relatively short book—shorter than the other book that I also published this past fall, Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture, which is a collection of my pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere.
Since Why Architecture Matters is shorter, of course it took a lot longer to write—you remember that old line about how if I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter. Well, yes. My view is that if you want to know what constitutes Georgian or classical or Gothic architecture, or what a pilaster or a pediment is—well, you can always look it up. Anyway, the book starts with the statement that I know that architecture matters very much to me, but I have no desire to claim that it can save the world.
Why Architecture Matters
Great architecture is not bread on the table, and it is not justice in the courtroom. It affects the quality of life, yes, and often with an astonishing degree of power. But it does not heal the sick, teach the ignorant, or in and of itself sustain life.
At its best, it can help to heal and to teach by creating a comfortable and uplifting environment for these things to take place in. This is but one of the ways in which architecture, though it may not sustain life, can give the already sustained life meaning. When we talk about how architecture matters, it is important to understand that the way in which it matters—beyond, of course, the obvious fact of shelter—is the same way in which any kind of art matters: it makes life better.
Now, many of the architectural things we love best, and care for the most, are not of course works of art at all. Vernacular architecture, the unself-conscious, ordinary architecture of the everyday landscape, which sometimes feels like an old aunt, unsophisticated but with great natural wisdom, and deeply beloved for it. It is difficult not to cherish the tile-roofed, white houses of the Mediterranean, the shingled cottages of New England, the brick commercial buildings of the main streets of Midwestern American cities.
There is something in the way human beings are designed that reacts well to some shapes and not others, and these time-tested vernaculars reflect not only climactic and cultural conditions of their areas but also these inherently appealing shapes. What eye does not love a red-painted barn in a sloping meadow? It is both intrinsically attractive as a form and soothing as a symbol of a comfortable, ordered life.
So, too, is it with a row of Italianate brownstones or a small Cape Cod cottage. But these things alone, wonderful as they are, are not enough.
Great architecture is something else, something that takes us beyond the vernacular. It is no easier to say what makes a work of architecture succeed as art than to say what makes a great painting or great music.
Yet every so often come innovations so powerful that they force their way through and make us see the world differently.
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These changes may be small; the notion that art, even great art, creates epiphanies is more the stuff of overblown memoirs than real life. Rare is the life that is transformed by exposure to a single work of art.
Yet art does change us, through exhilaration, shock, and a heightened sense of possibility. And once we have felt these, we are no longer the same. Desire, not need, leads to great art, Kahn said—but when the artistic achievement is great enough, it becomes a new need.
And after that, no one who ever heard it could conceive of living without it. Now, expanding a sense of human possibility is a lovely notion, but as a definition of great architecture it is vague and unsatisfying, and not only because there are disturbing as well as uplifting ways in which human possibility can be expanded—you could say that the latest devices by which terrorists attack civilization are also forms of expanding human possibility also, but they are grotesque and horrible ones.
Yet even if we stay with the positive connotations, this phrase suggests a kind of well-meaning, New Age mission in which art provides a kind of warm bath, full of intellectual and spiritual uplift. It often expands human possibility in ways that are hard to understand and are troubling, even shocking, to experience.
Art, at its most important, is not merely a matter of looking at beautiful things. It can be difficult and disturbing. It forces us to see things differently, in part by breaking the mold of what has come before. The new is often hard to accept; it can seem ugly or coarse.
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It is only seldom seen as beautiful. I think of it as Creation. But would our stalwart have liked Constable in when he exhibited at the Paris Salon and caused a riot? To the average eye, now, Constable is a pretty landscape painter, not a revolutionary who daubed bright color against bright color ungraded by chiaroscuro. We have had years to get used to the man who turned his back on the studio picture, took his easel outdoors and painted in the rapture of light.
It is easy to copy Constable. It was not easy to be Constable.
In each case, artists have broken through convention and changed our notions of what a culture can produce. Their breakthroughs now please us and, if they remain as potent as they should, thrill us. Yet they were almost always initially unpopular and vastly misunderstood.
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And now it is not possible to imagine our culture without the things their passions made possible. When architecture is art, it does not escape the obligation to be practical, and its practical shortcomings should not be forgiven. At least not entirely. Yet neither should practical matters play the dominant role in making judgments. That leaky roof is not your problem or mine, and neither is the fact that we might not wish to live in such a building ourselves.
Her discomfort is understandable, as was the anger felt toward Mies van der Rohe by Edith Farnsworth, who like the Savoyes commissioned one of the greatest houses of the twentieth century and, once living in it, found it woefully impractical. The Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth were unlucky because they had to live with a work of art at every moment, a nearly impossible task. The rest of us have the luxury of looking at these houses only when we want to.
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Some people, of course, are capable only of looking at houses in practical terms. And if we are lucky enough to be able to appreciate Building X or Building Y as a purely aesthetic experience, regardless of its usefulness, so much the better. As no man is a hero to his valet, few great houses are uplifting works of art to the people who live in them: these people are simply too close, and because they are there at every moment, they have no choice but to think of comfort.
The rest of us can think of challenge, and of beauty, and treat them as works of genius, which are often incompatible with the demands of daily life. Unlike art or literature, architecture must protect us from the elements.
It must, in some way, console us, for its job is to protect us. We cannot live with architecture as constant challenge, any more than we can approach James Joyce as escape reading or treat John Cage as elevator music. This is actually true of every kind of architecture, from buildings that are designed only for comfort to the ones designed mainly to challenge us. Everyday architecture gives us some license to ignore it, to think of it as a kind of background hum, to be noticed only when it is exceptionally big, exceptionally ugly or exceptionally beautiful.
Most of the architecture that surrounds us we barely see; in architecture, familiarity often breeds not contempt but complacency. The Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth would have been happy to settle for complacency, I suspect. It is no wonder that they were not happy. Even without leaky roofs and too much hot sun, it is difficult to live within a work of art every day of your life. The Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth chose their architects and approved their plans, of course, but that is beside the point; it merely adds a level of irony to their distress.
Most Wright owners are fiercely loyal to their houses, but it is not surprising that they seek a break from time to time from his relentless presence in their lives.